Michael Mann’s disappointing gangland saga arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
The first half of the 1930′s, when America endured the worst of the Great Depression, also gave rise to a renewed public fascination with crime and the people who committed it. The bank robbers, outlaws, and gangsters of the era were lionized for defying the same corrupt system of laws and commerce that drove America to the brink of economic ruin. Outsized personalities like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd received media and public adulation, becoming in a sense the original stars of reality entertainment thanks to newsreels and an entire new genre of film.
Though by no means the first attempt at bringing the life of charismatic bank robber Dillinger to the screen, Public Enemies lacks the immediacy of the best gangster films of the 30s while at the same failing to offer perspective or context to its subject or the era to which he belonged. It’s a disappointing work by director and co-writer Michael Mann that’s further encumbered by vague and unconvincing performances from stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. It’s also not very entertaining to watch.
The movie begins in 1934, as Dillinger (Depp) attempts to spring his mentor and several other convicts out of a bunker-like prison. The jailbreak goes wrong, but Dillinger and his gang head to Chicago, where in short order they’re robbing banks in a manner that allows Depp to jump over counters and look dashing. Their bravado rankles Federal Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover, at a time when the politically rapacious bureaucrat wants Congress to allocate more funding for his fledgling agency. Hoover appoints agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) to pursue Dillinger, sending him to head the Chicago field office via a ready-made press conference.
Dillinger meanwhile romances a hat check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose), whom he meets and decides to love in the space of a single night. She’s as restless as he is, or so we’re told, and swoons for Dillinger’s promises of eternal love, wealth, and adventure. “Where are you going?” she asks him, in dialogue ostensibly meant to evoke the romantic patter of classic Hollywood films. “Anywhere I want,” Dillinger tells her. They head for Miami, then Tucson, where Dillinger is arrested and returned to Indiana for trial. Their scenes are interspersed with Purvis’ attempts to make crimebusters out of the Chicago field office’s earnest but woefully inexperienced agents. After an early attempt to arrest George “Baby Face” Nelson gets an agent killed, Purvis brings in three lawmen from Texas to assist in the Dillinger manhunt.
What happens for the rest of the film should have the feel of slowly encroaching fate, or a collision course between the self-disciplined but ferocious Purvis and the flamboyant but no less ferocious Dillinger. History itself gives them a spectacular final confrontation, and Mann’s best film, Heat, had just such a cop-vs.-crook trajectory. Instead Mann builds this film as a parade of scenes with little or no resonance to one another. Only once, as Dillinger receives a visit from Purvis while awaiting trial, do the two men size each other up. Yet the scene is typical of the movie’s flaws: Depp talks too much, Bale says almost nothing, and little is put forward by either actor or plot. An important confrontation at a Wisconsin resort, in which the g-men’s bungling gets innocents killed but allows Dillinger and Nelson to escape, never achieves its set piece potential but becomes instead mired in ear-splitting gunfire and under-lit cinematography. The notorious gunfight was a crucial event in Dillinger’s life and in the history of American crime, but the film gives it only perfunctory attention.
Such indifference runs throughout Mann’s direction. Regarded for his work in the crime genre (Heat, Manhunter, the groundbreaking television series Crime Story) and known for his attention to cityscapes and the corruptive power of urban life, both early gangsters and the cities of the Great Depression ought to play naturally to his strengths. Yet the script, co-written with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, cannot manage to place the events in any kind of context. Worse still, the sense of sameness that pervades the look of the film – pasty-faced agents and snarling gangsters, dozens of murky rooms and grimy exteriors, too many of the same characters in repetitive dialogue – keeps it from building momentum or establishing a rhythm that would help the audience immerse themselves in the narrative or the time and place.
This is especially problematic in the scenes with Depp and Cotillard, all of which amount to the same conversation played out in different locales. Cotillard is a charming actress and Mann’s films are seldom sensitive to the female psyche, yet she rises to the part given her better than most. It’s easy to imagine an American actress demanding a monologue or a crying scene; thankfully Cotillard is above such silliness. Depp, conversely, may be letting the incessant critical praise lavished on him since the first Pirates of the Caribbean go to his beautiful head. His Dillinger always seems thoughtful about something, but Depp seldom allows the audience an indication of his character’s internal deliberations. Dillinger – the daring, brash bank robber – remains opaque under Depp’s portrayal, except in the scenes where he’s required to be romantic or dashing. At those times Dillinger behaves suspiciously like Johnny Depp, movie star.
Regarding the other performances, Bale plays the righteous Purvis with low-key intensity, suggesting an anger or indignation that unfortunately never boils to the surface. Even after he and his men gun Dillinger down (in an overlong and unnecessarily graphic sequence), Bale’s iron curtain stays shut on the character. For as gifted and versatile an actor as he is, the indifferent portrayal here is especially frustrating. Alternately, a bright spot arrives in the form of veteran actor Peter Gerety, who barnstorms his way through a courtroom scene as Dillinger’s lawyer. Jason Clarke (Death Race) does a lot with the role of Dillinger flunkie Red Hamilton, despite having lines like “when your times up, your time’s up.” Finally, longtime Mann fans should also recognize Stephen Lang (The Men Who Stare At Goats), a mainstay of the director’s work in the 1980s, as Texas Ranger Charles Winstead. Lange surfaces completely out of the grim morass only near the end, and his final scene with Cotillard at least allows the film to end with a bittersweet grace note.
- Michael Kabel
(Note: An earlier version of this review was originally published for the film’s theatrical release.)